HaRav Zev Leff: Parshas Vaeira


Torah and Nature Paths to Ahavas Hashem

The Nile will swarm with frogs, and when they emerge, they will be in your palace, in your bedroom, and [even] in your bed. [They will also be in] the homes of your officials and people, even in your ovens and kneading bowls (Shemos 7 28). 

The second plague which God brought upon the Egyptians was 1 frogs. These frogs invaded every place in Egypt, including the ovens fired up for baking.

The Talmud (Pesachim s3b) relates that the frogs were the inspiration for Chananiah, Misha’el and Azaryah

What did Chananiah, Misha’el, and Azaryah see that caused them to enter the fiery furnace of Nevuchadnezzar? They reasoned a fortiori from the frogs of Egypt. If frogs, which are not commanded to sanctify God’s Name, entered the fiery furnace in order to sanctify God’s Name, how much more so should we, who are commanded to sanctity God’s Name, do so.

This Gemara raises the issue of how nature can serve as a means of coming to the knowledge of Hashem. Let us consider some of the uses and misuses of the contemplation of nature.

Rambam in Sefer Hamitzvos says that the path to love of Hashem is through Torah learning. Yet, in Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah, Rambam says that contemplating the natural world and its awe-inspiring wonders leads one to love of Hashem. The fact is that both of these paths are ultimately one. The Torah was the blueprint for the creation of the world, and thus nature is merely the physical manifestation of Torah. The Ten Commandments (Aseres Hadibros), in which the entire Torah is alluded to, correspond to the Ten Utterances (Asarah Ma’amaros), with which the world was created. Nevertheless, there is a crucial difference between nature and Torah as paths to Hashem.

The Midrash says that HaKadosh Boruch Hu did not create the world with the first letter, aleph, for it signifies-cursed-but rather with the second letter, beis, which signifies-blessing. But to placate the aleph, which felt slighted, Hashem began the Ten Commandments with an aleph-anoyeche. When it comes to using nature as a path to Hashem, one’s explorations must be carefully guided, so that one indeed finds Hashem through his observation of nature. As King David proclaimed, Hashem is to be found in nature “When I see Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, I am inspired to realize my insignificance in relationship to God, Who is overwhelming” (Tehillim 8 4). But there remains a danger in the observation of nature as the Torah warns us: “Lest you raise your eyes heavenward and observe the sun, the moon and the stars, and you are enticed to bow to them and serve them” (Devarim 4:19)

Yuri Gargarin, the first Soviet cosmonaut, announced upon returning to earth that he was now sure that God did not exist, chas veshalom, because he did not see Him. On the other hand, American astronauts on one of the Apollo missions transmitted breathtaking views of the earth from space, and recited Psalm 119, “The Heavens declare the glory of God….” Two observations of the same thing, two divergent responses.

The bais of blessing must be clear and decisive when it comes to observing God through nature. However, the path of Torah is not fraught with such danger. Quite the contrary, the inner light of Torah study guides one toward the good. When it comes to Torah, even that which can potentially be a curse, the aleph, can be inspired and directed by the inner light of Torah for the good. For this reason, Torah study must always be the primary path, the aleph. Only one steeped in the study of Torah can truly and properly utilize the path of observing nature, the second path, the bats.

Two blessings precede Krias Shema, which contains the mitzvah of love of Hashem. The first, Yotzer ohr, deals with nature and all of its aspects. The second, Ahavah rabbah, deals with Torah study. Creation precedes the giving of the Torah chronologically, and hence the blessing on nature is first. The blessing of nature, however, begins with a bais — boruch atah -while the blessing of Torah begins with an aleph -ahava rabbah. In actual practice, the study of Torah must be given priority.

The custom is to recite Barchi nafshi after Minchah on Shabbos during the winter, and to learn Pirkei Avos during the summer months. Barchi nafshi represents the path towards Hashem through nature and Pirkei Avos the path of Torah study. In the winter, nature is dormant, while Torah study is at its peak, since the long nights are conducive to the study of Torah. Therefore the path of nature must be emphasized through the recitation of Barchi nafshi, which speaks of the wonders of nature. In the summer, however, the opposite is true. Nature is in its full glory, but the nights are short and Torah study is at its low ebb. Hence the need to learn Pirkei Avos which emphasizes the path of Torah. Here, too, Barchi nafshi, nature, begins with a bais, and Avos begins with an aleph, to inform us which path must always be primary.

All creation was designed to inspire and lead us to love Hashem. The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 31a) says that on the fifth day of the week, we recite Chapter 81 of Tehillim, “Sing out to the God of our strength,” for on this day birds and fish were created to praise Hashem’s Name. Rashi explains that it is not the birds and fish themselves which sing Hashem’s praises; rather when people observe the birds and fish, they give praise to the One Who created them. Similarly, Perek Shirah, which relates the songs of various animals, plants and inanimate objects, is explained by Rabbi Yosef Mitrani, in his work Beis Elokim, as referring not to the utterances of these creatures and objects but to the responses the natural phenomena evoke in the human beings who observe and study them.

The accessibility of nature to our physical senses is an important supplement to our knowledge of Hashem. As physical beings, we are affected more by what we see, hear, touch, smell, and taste than by what we know intellectually. Although Moshe was informed of the sin of the Golden Calf by Hashem, he did not actually break the Luchos (Tablets) until he personally observed the sin himself.

Emunah and ahavas Hashem must be made as real and intense as that which we experience with our senses. The Torah manifested in nature helps one concretize his emunah.

Entering the fiery furnace to sanctify Hashem’s name required great strength and commitment. Unless Chananiah, Mishatel and Azaryah had reached a level where their knowledge of kiddush Hashem had become concretized by their senses and observed as a fact of nature, they might have shied away from taking that awesome step and wrongly justified themselves by misapplying the command to “live by them.” They saw in nature the sanctification of God’s Name by the frogs, and this supplemented their knowledge of the mandate to sanctify God’s Name. Their new knowledge gave them the courage and will to fulfill that which they knew to be intellectually binding. By seeing kiddush Hashem represented in nature, they sensed it, they felt it. If frogs have the strength to do this, they reasoned, surely that same strength exists within us.

May we steep ourselves in Torah learning so that in observing the world around us, we can be inspired, encouraged and strengthened to navigate our paths to emunah and love of Hashem.